As unrest continues in this Arab country, we look at the background of the situation and some key players
— McClatchy Washington Bureau
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Q: How did Hosni Mubarak
and Egypt become so important in U.S. foreign policy? A: President Hosni Mubarak
came to rule in Egypt 30 years ago after an act of violence — radical Islamist members of the Egyptian army, angry at Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, opened fire on President Anwar Sadat in 1981 during a military parade. Mubarak was Sadat’s vice president and has been Egypt’s president ever C H U C K K E N N E DY / M C T since. Until Mubarak violent riots on Friday, Jan. 28, Mubarak had never appointed a vice president or successor. During those three decades, Egypt, once an ally of the Soviet Union, has become one of the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world. The United States provides the Egyptian military with $1.3 billion in aid annually, making Egypt the No. 2 recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, after Israel. In spite of Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel. Egypt has played a key role in helping Israel isolate the Gaza Strip, where the radical group Hamas rules. Egypt also played a controversial role in the U.S. war on terror and has been accused of torturing terrorism suspects that were sent there during the administration of George W. Bush. As the most populous of the Arab countries, Egypt is considered a major influence on developments in the Arab world.
What’s the background on the unrest there? A: During his 30-year rule,
parliamentary elections in November, for example, the police jailed Mubarak’s opponents, blocked rallies, clamped down on independent news media and angrily rejected calls by the United States and others to allow international observers to monitor the vote. An estimated 1,400 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained, one of the country’s most outspoken reporters was fired as the editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper Al Dustour after the paper was bought by new owners. A popular talk show, “Cairo Today,” was abruptly shut down after an episode criticized Egyptian state media for being soft on Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who at one time was thought likely to be his successor. Even the United States has found the political control distressing over the years. Last year, U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold, DWis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., drafted a resolution that called on Mubarak to repeal the emergency law. Cables released recently by the website WikiLeaks show that American diplomats were often critical of Mubarak’s hold on power.
What set off the current unrest? A: The trigger for the unrest in
demonstrations began peacefully, but turned violent when police used tear gas and water hoses to disperse crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Sporadic clashes continued until Jan. 28, when massive crowds overwhelmed police, set fire to police stations in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez and freed prisoners. The Cairo headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was looted and burned. In a speech after midnight, Mubarak appointed a new cabinet and named a vice president, Omar Suleiman.
What has happened since? A: Protesters continued to
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American University of Cairo
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Mubarak has kept firm control of Egypt’s political process. An emergency law that allows him to rule by decree has been in effect throughout that time. The principal opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned, though some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s members hold seats in parliament. Before each election, it’s become routine for Egyptian police to arrest opposition political figures and journalists. Before
Egypt were protests that had toppled the government of Tunisia, which had long been ruled by an autocratic dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who’d been in power 23 years and whose regime had been accused of massive personal corruption. That corruption received new publicity starting Dec. 7 when cables by the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia were published by the WikiLeaks website. Those cables described in detail the ostentatious wealth displayed by Ben Ali’s family. Tensions grew worse when on Dec. 17 a Tunisian vendor set himself on fire after police confiscated his goods because he did not have a license. After a month of escalating protests, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. Inspired by Tunisia, Egyptian opposition groups called for protests against Mubarak. Those began on Jan. 25, which was called the Day of Rage and whose date, #jan25, has become a familiar tag for posters using Twitter to comment on events in Egypt. The
rally in Tahrir Square, demanding that Mubarak resign. Police vanished from the streets, and there were reports of looting throughout Cairo. The army was deployed in Tahrir Square, and military officials vowed they would not attack the demonstrators, who complained that Mubarak’s new cabinet was made up primarily of the same old faces. On Tuesday, Feb. 1, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded into Tahrir Square for the biggest rally of the week. That night Mubarak announced he would not seek reelection in balloting scheduled for September but would remain in office until his term ends. The next day, proMubarak mobs attacked anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square, where there were pitched battles for more than 24 hours. At
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© 2011 MCT
Detailed map of area surrounding Tahrir Square, focal point of protests in Cairo, Egypt.
least 13 people were killed and hundreds injured in the fighting.
What’s likely to happen now? A: No one can predict. The
Obama administration has called on Egyptian authorities to begin the “transition” now, but both Mubarak and his vice president, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, rebuffed requests by Obama envoy Frank Wisner that Mubarak step down before the elections. Mubarak also has remained adamant that he will not go into exile like Tunisian President Ben Ali.
U.S. officials say they believe the Egyptian army will serve as a peacekeeper in the confrontations and will not try to push Mubarak out. Meanwhile, the leaders of some other Arab states have taken actions they hope will fend off pressures on their governments. Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his prime minister and appointed a new one, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s been in office since 1978, announced he won’t seek reelection in 2013.
Who will be the key people involved in the events? A: Aside from Mubarak, the
C A R O LY N C O L E / L O S A N G E L E S T I M E S / M C T
Anti-Hosni Mubarak protesters, hiding behind makeshift shields, throw rocks at a rival group, where they clashed for a second day in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 3.
key players in Egypt are likely to include Mubarak’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, and opposition figures Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour. Suleiman, 75, who’s fluent in English, is close to the United States and has been a key gobetween in the Israel-Palestinian peace talks. He is also a close confidant of Mubarak, who came to rely on him after Suleiman insisted in 1995 that an armored car be flown to Ethiopia for Mubarak’s visit there. The vehicle saved the pair from an ambush by Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. ElBaradei, 69, is perhaps the world’s best-known Egyptian. He served as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear monitoring agency, and won the Nobel Peace prize for his work there in 2005. He openly opposed the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq and contested claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The United States was the only country to oppose his appointment to a third term as head of the IAEA in 2005. Still, he’s viewed by many in Egypt as too Westernized to lead that country, though he was recently endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood as the head of the opposition movement. Nour, a lawyer and a former member of Parliament, is the founder of the opposition al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. He ran a distant second to Mubarak in the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election in 2006. The following year, Nour was jailed and spent more than three years behind bars on disputed charges that he used forged signatures to start his party. After his release, Nour resumed his opposition activities. He is a founder of the National Association for Change, the movement of secular and Islamic opposition groups pressing for constitutional changes that would allow ElBaradei to run for president this year.
— McClatchy correspondents Hannah Allam, Miret El Naggar, Shashank Bengali, Warrren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.
C A R O LY N C O L E / L O S A N G E L E S T I M E S / M C T
Protesters call for the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in downtown Cairo, Egypt, on Jan. 30.